DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The top of the Blue Jays' batting order has been somewhat of a black hole for almost a decade, but that is expected to change this year following the additions of Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera.
Toronto hasn't possessed a prototypical leadoff hitter since the days of Shannon Stewart. The organization has been forced to experiment over the years without having the luxury of utilizing a player who has both speed and a high on-base percentage at the top of the lineup.
The heart of the order has been in place for quite some time, but the difference in taking the next step toward contention this year could be the guys getting on base in front of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
"[Reyes], that's been his job his whole career, being a leadoff guy," manager John Gibbons said. "He's one of the best in the business. We kind of mixed and matched to find a guy to fit that spot the last time I was here.
"If you get a guy you can put in there every night and he knows that role, knows how to play it, and is very good at it, it makes things a lot easier."
Last year, the Blue Jays used five different leadoff hitters and finished the season ranked second-to-last in the American League with a paltry .294 on-base percentage in that spot.
The numbers in the two-hole were better, but the club still managed to finish just sixth in the AL with a .319 OBP. By comparison, Reyes owns a career .342 OBP while Cabrera has a .345 mark dating back to the 2009 season.
The increased production could make life a lot easier for Bautista. The past couple of seasons, pitchers have been allowed to take a much more cautious approach with the slugger because oftentimes he comes to bat without anyone on base.
The increased traffic on the basepaths could put an end to that, while the speed possessed by both Reyes and Cabrera also has the potential to be distracting to opposing pitchers. It's an exciting mix that has Bautista optimistic about his chances of driving in more runs this season.
"They're going to set the table for us," Bautista said. "The better they do, the better that Edwin, Adam [Lind] and I will be able to drive runs in, and that's going to lead to more runs, and that should lead to more wins.
"It's not solely on them, though. We can get going one through nine, because we're pretty solid. The first half of the lineup and the second half of the lineup are different styles, but there's still a capability of scoring runs."
Toronto hasn't had this type of luxury in years. Stewart came up through the system and played that leadoff role for parts of nine seasons before being dealt to the Twins in a 2003 midseason deal. During his time in Toronto, he had a .298 average while posting a .363 OBP.
Even though Stewart was plagued by hamstring injuries, he still managed to steal 196 bases and had to be constantly monitored by opposing teams. It was the type of skill set that was ideal to have at the top of the order, but the same could not be said for players and years that followed in Toronto's lineup.
During Gibbons' first go-around with Toronto -- from 2004-08 -- the Blue Jays used 20 different players out of the leadoff hole. Reed Johnson was the closest fit, but there were some bizarre additions over that time as well including the likes of Lind, Matt Stairs, Vernon Wells, Brad Wilkerson and Joe Inglett.
In more recent years, the experimentation continued. The most successful was Marco Scutaro, but while he had the ability to get on-base, he didn't have the typical speed associated with that spot. The same won't be said about Reyes.
"Everybody knows the way I play," said Reyes, who hit .287 with 11 homers and 57 RBIs last season in Miami. "The one thing I'm going to do is try to get on base and score a lot of runs. That's what I've been doing my whole career, and hopefully I can keep doing that here. We have a very good lineup, and we're going to be dangerous."
The added benefit for the Blue Jays is that it doesn't start and stop with Reyes and Cabrera. Utility man and candidate for second base Emilio Bonifacio possesses a similar skill set, while Brett Lawrie has proven he can handle the job in a pinch. There's a multitude of options for Gibbons.
"We haven't had a true leadoff guy here since Scutaro left, and even him, he wasn't a true leadoff guy," Bautista said. "He did have some good leadoff-hitter characteristics, like getting on base and not striking out, but he didn't steal bases. With Reyes, we have the whole package, which is going to be huge.
"With Bonifacio we're basically going to have a second leadoff guy. If you look at his career stats, they're in percentages that are pretty similar to Jose's, with stolen bases and getting on base. He might strike out a little bit more, but if he ends up being the starter and he hits ninth, that nine-one-two combination ... can create some havoc."